Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881

The concluding book of Joseph Frank’s magisterial five-volume Dostoevsky biography picks up where the last left off: Dostoevsky has returned to Russia from extended European travels, designed to give him temporary relief from his financial obligations. He has published three major works – The Idiot, Crime And Punishment and Demons – and once again ascended to the very heights of the Russian literary scene. By 1871, at this volume’s outset, his stature as a novelist equals that of Turgenev and Tolstoy, but he is about to surpass them in a new venture: that of public intellectual. From 1873 until his death in 1881, he devoted himself to publishing his “A Writer’s Diary,” containing essays, sketches, musings and short fiction, available to the public by subscription to The Citizen, a literary journal he also edited. The “Diary” was written in personal tones and drew on some of his own day-to-day experiences, and thus offered readers an intimate glimpse of a writer until then known only through his highly philosophical novels and their oddball casts of characters. The diary was, in our modern parlance, a platform, and it offered Dostoevsky a relatively unfiltered connection to his readers, who responded by subscribing in record numbers, thus alleviating many of his financial concerns. The result was that, for almost the first time in his life, he could compose at his own pace, unimpeded by demanding creditors, and it is from this brief reprieve wrested from a life of toil that he would conceive and write his opus, The Brothers Karamazov, finished just months before his death.

In one sense, this ten-year period from 1871 until his death in 1881 was perhaps the least eventful of his life: no mock execution and Siberian exile, no new love affairs, no spectacular gambling failures. And yet Russia itself was experiencing a period of turmoil not seen since the Decembrist revolt of 1825, with three failed assassination attempts against Tsar Alexander II occurring between April of 1879 and February of 1880, and untold assassinations occurring across the countryside to lesser representatives of the tsarist regime. It wasn’t only the sheer volume of these attempts that discomfited the public, but the reach of the would-be assassins, one of whom managed to penetrate the Tsar’s own Winter Palace to install an explosive. It is against this backdrop that Dostoevsky would adopt “the mantle of the prophet,” would come to be regarded, in his own lifetime, as a visionary writer and thinker with the capacity to see through the tangled ideological nets and power alliances vying for control of the country and the minds of its people. By the time the first instalments of The Brothers Karamazov begin to appear in January of 1879, the country had already come to regard Dostoevsky as one of its premier literary talents; by the time the final instalments are going to press in the fall of 1880, seemingly all of literate Russia is looking to him and his great book for insights into the central political question of the time: as Lenin would later put it, what is to be done? What is to be done about the tsar? What is to be done about the illiterate, drunken and impoverished Russian peasantry? Will Russia continue to evolve as a monarchist state, or is some decisive break from its past needed to push the country into the coming 20th century?

The Brothers Karamazov centres on a patricide, the killing of a drunken, lecherous and neglectful father, and thus it poses the very same question facing Russia in more personal terms: does the authority and loyalty due to a leader – whether a father or tsar – extend even to an incompetent or abusive leader? And if not, might he justifiably be murdered or deposed? In Fyodor Karamazov, Dostoevsky created a perfect test case, for his lifetime of selfish indulgence makes a mockery of the ideals of fatherhood. Even if the murder of such a man cannot be justified, the book will ask us, can we not bring ourselves to excuse the killer? Are there not, in legal terms, mitigating circumstances that might enable us to show mercy toward the wretch who raises a hand against his corrupt and abusive father? For two hundred some pages, Frank takes us through The Brothers Karamazov, chapter by chapter, in what is surely one of the most impressive feats of close reading in the history of literary biography. What is revealed, gradually at first, is the full intricacy and scope of Dostoevsky’s design: every character, however minor, comes to serve his or her part in the larger questions the novel raises, questions which plague us to this day. Consider Ivan Karamazov, whom readers will know as the brightest and most rational-minded of the brothers Karamazov. It is Ivan who levels literature’s most devastating critique against the idea of God, by invoking the suffering of innocent children as an intolerable flaw in any created universe. Who, after all, could worship a god who permits children to die of dysentery or bone cancer, as they do every day by the thousands? It is Ivan who furnishes us with the “legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” which imagines a member of the church, a Grand Inquisitor, taking it upon himself to “correct” Christ’s mistake of venerating spiritual perfection over earthly wellbeing. But Ivan is also plagued by what seems to him an unsolvable contradiction: if there is no God, he reasons, there can be no foundational morality, which can only result in an inversion of the present moral law: “egoism, even to the point of evildoing, should not only be permitted to man but should be acknowledged as the necessary, the most reasonable, and all but the noblest result of his situation.”

Ivan does not murder his father. In fact, he is horrified by the deed itself. But the actual murderer, the lackey Smerdyakov, perhaps the illegitimate son of Fyodor, insists that it was Ivan who gave him permission to do the deed, who positively welcomed it. Smerdyakov, Frank argues, is the product of Ivan’s central idea – that the absence of God inevitably results in moral relativism – filtered through a man without Ivan’s broad sympathies. Frank takes us to the night of the murder, before the narrative has unfolded sufficiently for the reader to know what is to come:

That night he [Ivan] could not sleep, and was filled with feelings and impulses he could not understand – “he felt himself that he had lost his bearings.” The narrator, however, self-consciously refuses to enter into any extended analysis: “This is not the place to look into that soul – its time will come.” Instead, he reports objectively on the turmoil in Ivan’s spirit, “fretted by all sorts of strange and almost surprising desires,” such as wishing to go to the lodge and beat Smerdyakov. He could not have explained why, “except perhaps that he loathed the lackey as one who had insulted him more gravely than anyone in the world.” Smerdyakov’s “insult,” consisted in his perfectly justified assumption that Ivan had no deeply rooted objection to the murder of his loathsome father, though he himself refused to face up to this truth.

Later in the narrative, Ivan will come to realize this himself, that he had tacitly assented to the murder of his own father, and the realization drives him to the brink of insanity. The thematic connection to the Grand Inquisitor passage is made explicit when Ivan subconsciously decides to leave his father, thus giving Smerdyakov the opportunity to commit the murder:

Ivan tells his father the next morning that he will go to Chermashnaya, as the old man had requested, to sell a copse for him. Feodor Pavlovich is delighted, “because you are a clever man,” but Ivan avoids kissing him on departure. Smerdyakov jumps on the carriage to wrap Ivan in his rug and says to him privately, “It’s always worthwhile speaking to a clever man.” This repeated designation echoes Ivan’s remark to Alyosha that the Grand Inquisitor, after losing his faith in Christ, had joined “the clever people.” As Ivan rolls through the countryside, he at first feels a sense of relief, but then recalls the lackey’s parting words, whose implications he pretends not to understand. “‘What did he mean by that?’ The thought seemed suddenly to clutch at his breathing.” Changing his plans, Ivan travels to Moscow, “to a new life, new places, and no looking back!” But his gloom and anguish do not vanish, and on arriving in Moscow he has a moment of truth: “‘I am a scoundrel,’ he said to himself.” It is only much later, however, that he will experience the full implications of such a recognition.

Even now, months after completing The Brothers Karamazov, I shudder at passages such as these, for here Dostoevsky is laying bare the moral bankruptcy of the “clever people,” whose ideas end in murder even as they insist on their right to judge existence itself. We are today plagued by such clever people, though few of them possess even an ounce of Ivan’s self-awareness. In our universities, the police are routinely described as an occupying force, an unjust and unneeded arm of an oppressive state. My own prime minister, in his infinite stupidity, has assented to the existence of an ongoing genocide in Canada against indigenous women. Academics and political pundits regularly refer to the Constitution of the United States as illegitimate, to the founding of the country as mere theft and rapacity. Israel, they tell me, is an apartheid state in the midst of committing a genocide. Few of these opinion holders would side with Smerdyakov and take these ideas to their rational conclusion; they would even affect horror. But if the police are indeed an oppressive force, someone will murder them and think it justified. If Canada is a genocidal state, factions will rise up in rebellion to overthrow it.

A final word, on Frank’s chosen title: The Mantle of the Prophet. Dostoevsky’s favorite poem was Alexander Pushkin’s “The Prophet,” which he was fond of reciting among friends, and would eventually recite at the unveiling of the Pushkin Monument in Moscow, mere months before his own death. I quote the poem in full:

Tormented by a spiritual thirst,
I stumbled through a gloomy waste,
And there a six-winged seraph
Appeared before me at the crossroad.
With touch as light as slumber,
He laid his fingers on my eyes,
Which opened wide in prophecy
Just as a startled eagle’s might.
Upon my ears his touch then fell,
And they were filled with noise and clangs:
I heard the heavens shift on high,
The whispering of angels’ wings,
Sea monsters moving in the deep,
The growing grapevines in the vales.
And then he bent down towards my mouth,
My sinful tongue he ripped right out-
Its slander and its idle lies-
And with his bloody hand inserted
Between my still and lifeless lips
A cunning serpent’s forked tongue.
And with his sword he cleaved my breast
Removed my shaking heart,
And then he seized a blazing coal,
And placed it in my gaping breast.
Corpse-like I lay upon the sand
And then God’s voice called out to me:
“Arise, O Prophet, watch and hark,
Fulfill all my commands:
Go forth now over land and sea,
And with your word ignite men’s hearts.”

You need not be a particularly astute reader to grasp the poem’s conceit: that true prophecy requires a death and rebirth, a painful reawakening to truths normally outside a mortal man’s purview. Having now read five volumes and nearly 3,000 pages of Dostoevsky’s life, and being privileged to have witnessed the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, I say unequivocally that Fyodor Dostoevsky was the very embodiment of Pushkin’s prophet. His mortal death came in 1849, when he was just 28 years old and brought before a firing squad, and every subsequent decade of his life was charged by the mission to speak a truth he alone could understand and articulate. Four undisputed masterpieces resulted, the last and best of which remains a cathedral in words, a monument to faith in the face of nihilism and despair, and our only hope, in the present, of not repeating the mistakes that hastened Russia’s descent into murder and madness.